When Leaves Come First

There are few pleasures that gardeners look forward to more than the first flowers of spring. After the bloom fades, all that's left is the foliage. However, the foliage can come in an endless array of colors.

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Some of the most striking variegations are the horizontal stripes found on ornamental grasses such as Miscanthus sinensis 'Zebrinus.' Recent introductions include M. sinsensis 'Gold Bar', with bands of gold and green, and M. sinensis 'Super Stripe', which has wide margins of pale white and forest green. These reliable perennials offer color into late fall long after most flowers are gone.

Designing a garden with variegated plants

  • Use variegated plants sparingly in the garden. Because many patterns are quite bold and striking, they can be most effective in combination with more subdued plants that are complementary. The intense yellow and green of Euonymus fortunei 'Emerald n' Gold' has more visual impact when paired with the saffron flowers of cinquefoil (Potentilla aurea). Think of pairing the groundcover bugleweed (Ajuga reptans 'Multicolor'), the metallic burgundy-green leaves suffused in cream and pink, beneath the rich purple canopy of smoke tree (Cotinus coggygria 'Royal Purple') for a dazzling effect in a mixed border.

  • Take advantage of the multiple roles that variegated plants can play in the garden. Patterned foliage creates the sensation of movement, adding a new dimension of depth and a sense of complexity. Shade-tolerant varieties can be used to lighten dark areas. Bold-leafed forms provide a dramatic focal point in a mixed border. Trailing vines such as periwinkle (Vinca minor) 'Illumination' make an attractive accent for containers. Extremely colorful foliage such as 'Kong' coleus looks best when standing alone or surrounded with neutral hues of green or gray.

    There's a variegated plant for every garden, whether an expansive mixed border, small courtyard, balcony or a single container. From supporting role to radiant star, these patterned plants add an unforgettable touch to any garden space.


    — Janet Loughrey is a horticulture photographer and writer who lives and gardens in Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in
    Sunset, Better Homes and Gardens and Country Living Gardener. Her book Gardens Adirondack Style was published in 2005 by Down East Books.

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